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How to (maybe) save local news in America

Citing 2019 reports by PEN America and the Brookings Institution, Tom Arenberg, who researches news writing and web metrics as an instructor at the University of Alabama, painted a desolate-yet-hopeful picture of local journalism when he spoke to Alabama Media Professionals at the group’s monthly meeting Feb. 13.

As readers and advertisers moved online, ad revenue went to Google and Facebook, not local news publishers, Arenberg said. Between 2004 and 2018, 20 percent of American newspapers failed, creating news deserts in rural and urban areas. “Basically, the economic model for newspapers collapsed,” he said. “When this happened, papers started to die.”

Research shows news deserts result in lower voter turnout, fewer candidates for election, more government corruption and loss of community knowledge.

Still, Arenberg sees reasons to be hopeful. They include:

  • The rise of small, digital news organizations, both non-profit and for-profit – These organizations are filling gaps created by the loss of traditional news outlets. They cover basic meetings, do investigative reporting and can be generalists or specialized. The Texas Tribune and Birmingham Watch are two examples.

These organizations have revenue streams that include donations, subscriptions, membership fees, business sponsorships, public event hosting, and investments from foundations and individuals.

  • Citizen journalism – Ordinary citizens are creating websites that disseminate detailed news about happenings in their communities. While Arenberg does see a problem with untrained journalists, he says that, in the current climate, the benefits outweigh the potential drawbacks.

  • Local newspapers are trying new ideas – Local newspapers are moving away page-view and click-bait ad models and toward subscription models, with mixed results. If quality is poor, residents aren’t like to pay, Arenberg said, but organizations with monopolies in the communities they serve are doing well.

  • Philanthropy – In November 2019, The Salt Lake Tribune became the first legacy newspaper to make the full switch to nonprofit status. The U.S. Internal Revenue Service granted nonprofit status based on the argument the newspaper is providing an educational benefit to community. Other newspapers are now considering a similar move.

  • Partnerships – Collaboration between news organizations that have competed in the past might seem ridiculous, but Arenberg says it’s a great thing and is beginning to happen more often. “The enemy is not rival media,” he said. “The enemy is corrupt government misusing tax dollars.”

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